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Costume Designer

Expert Sources: Susan Lyall
Last updated: Feb 15, 2022
Reads: 27,811

Career Overview

The Costume Designer creates the costumes that help to inform the characters and tell their stories in a film. They are the artistic head for all costume-based decisions on a shoot.

Alternate Titles

Head of Wardrobe

Salary Range

$3,000 to $3,500+ per week on a film

Career Description

The job of a Costume Designer is to define the character through costume.

The Costume Designer comes aboard a project during the pre-production phase. This is when they will read the script and meet the Director to familiarize themselves with characters and story.

From there, the Costume Designer will research all elements relevant to costuming such as the time period and story location to create sketches or a mood board for the Director to review. After an aesthetic has been agreed upon, the Costume Designer will work with their team to build or shop for costumes.

When principal photography begins, the Costume Designer manages their team and makes sure that each costume is implemented in the way it was intended. This can include continuity, use in the correct scene, and dressing the Actors.

To learn more about working as a Costume Designer, we spoke with Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther).

What does a Costume Designer do?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

A Costume Designer designs and provides all the costumes for the Actors worn in the show. We work very closely with Actors and with production–meaning the Assistant Directors on set–making sure that our Actors are dressed and ready on time. We also work closely with Directors and Producers in pre-production where we first read and analyze the script, start assembling our ideas, and presenting them.

Depending on your Director you may interact very little or a lot. In either case, you often act as a liaison between a Director and Actor.

It’s very important that you work your way through the script and break it down by character. You need to understand the arc of the character’s journey and you have to understand how many story days there are. You have to understand: Is it day? Is it night? How much time has passed? Is this going to be an action sequence? Is it going to be raining? Do I need to have doubles of the costume? Will they be stuck in that police uniform the entire show? Things like that. They got stabbed and then they continued to survive for another forty pages. What stage of decay has occurred in the costume?

You have to know a lot about continuity and you need to be able to know exactly where you are at all times because when we film, we film out of sequence. It’s not filmed in order. On page thirty-eight, he gets stabbed, but we’re shooting scene seventy-four first. We need to imagine what has happened to the wound on his shirt way back on page 38, which might be one or two hours ago or the next day, depending on your script. You need to be able to analyze that and understand the passage of time and where you are in any given scene, costume-wise.

Salary

Costume Designers are generally considered freelance workers, which means that they do not receive benefits from gig to gig. However, if they are part of the Costume Designers Guild, they are guaranteed certain minimum rates and other advantages because of their inclusion in a union.

At the outset of their career, a Costume Designer may be working for very low or no pay at all as they build their portfolio. Given that they are freelancers, they can set their own rates, but they may be asked to negotiate them depending on the budget for a particular project.

As a Costume Designer builds their portfolio, skillsets, and experience, they will acquire greater leverage in terms of raising their rates.

What is an approximate range for a Costume Designer’s salary?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

Costume Designers are really low on the totem pole of salary. This is a very sensitive topic and deserves a reckoning. The union scale for a union film is around $3,000 to $3,500 a week. It varies from television to film, television being slightly lower. But someone like myself is above scale, and that can mean anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 a week. Very few people make $12,000 a week. I’d just like to say that.

But realistically, after decades of experience, you would probably get up to $7,000 or $8,000 per week. So there’s the union scale, and if you’re getting above scale, it’s probably $4,000 to $5,000 a week. As you build your career, you would get up to $6,000 and $7,000.

There’s a grid that recently came out in a Hollywood trade paper. The Cinematographer is at the top, and the scale for a Cinematographer is $8,000 or $9,000 a week. The scale for a Costume Designer is $3,000 +-. That’s quite a discrepancy. Even the Assistant Prop Person makes more than the Costume Designer’s scale. It has a lot to do with it being a traditionally female position.

The only thing I can say is that those positions are tied to an hourly wage on set and Costume Designers’ rates are typically on a flat rate. Whether you work two hours in a day or twenty-two hours in a day, you get the same amount of money. If you work a sixth day, you get paid time and a half, and if you work a seventh day, you get paid double. If you make $5,000 a week and you work a sixth day, you’ll make $1,500 on that day and $2,000 on Sunday. That’s pretty standard in any union.

Career Outlook

The position of Costume Designer on a film is an incredibly important one, as they carry the primary responsibility of conveying character through wardrobe choices. Given this leadership role, the professional life of a Costume Designer can be a highly rewarding yet demanding one.

For one, the hours can be long. Though the hours on a project will vary from film to film, a Costume Designer is expected to work whenever the production needs them. That means days, evenings, and weekends.

For instance, should a shoot be scheduled at night, the Costume Designer must be present to supervise wardrobe from dusk until dawn. The ever-changing and long hours can make the life of a Costume Designer anything but routine or conventional.

As mentioned, aspiring Costume Designers may be asked to put in those long hours for little or no pay in the early stages of their career, which may necessitate them taking on other kinds of jobs to maintain their quality of life.

Two, Costume Designers must be as skilled at communicating with a host of other creatives as they are designing and crafting the costumes the Actors will be wearing for a film.

A Costume Designer often has the opportunity to be part of a highly creative field and work with other talented professionals. The biggest artistic collaborator for a Costume Designer is the Director.

However, a central part of the job of a Costume Designer is maintaining collaborative and communicative relationships with those in their department during the life of a project. As such, their day-to-day contacts generally include the Assistant Costume Designer, Illustrator, Shoppers, Drapers, and any Production Assistants assigned to the department.

As an aspiring Costume Designer works their way up the career ladder, they may in fact be hired in any of these collaborative roles as they gain experience and grow their skillsets.

The Costume Designer also attends all meetings with key crew such as the Cinematographer, Key Hair, Key Makeup, Production Designer, Key Grip, and Gaffer to make sure that they’re all creating a unified aesthetic.

How long does it take to become a full-fledged Costume Designer?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

That really depends on the person and it depends on the size of whatever projects they care to work on. PAs usually spend a year or two as a PA. They can probably apply to one of the two unions. One is the Costume Design Union (USA 829), and one is the Wardrobe Union (704). Wardrobe is technically a different department but works hand-in-hand with the design team.

Wardrobe doesn’t choose the clothing, but they help take care of it on the set and make sure it’s being worn the way it’s supposed to be worn. If someone rolls up their sleeves and walks through the door, they have to keep those sleeves rolled up. They keep an eye on continuity. If someone spills something on their clothes, they’ll be there to clean it up. If it’s freezing, they’ll make sure that the Actor has a warm coat between takes. Things like that.

From there, Wardrobe people can also go on to supervising the department which includes making and tracking the budget, hiring people, and outfitting costume space. There’s the logistical side, and there’s the design side.

I would say that in California, it’s The Costume Designers Guild (892), and in New York, United Scenic Artists (829). I’m sure there are so many in between. I just know those two. They would consider people after they’ve worked on a couple of movies and have strong references.

In two to three years, you could probably join the union. Probably sooner if you’ve been to school and have a portfolio of drawings and designs. If you go to graduate school in costume design, you could probably join the union based on that and completely side-step the PA path.

Career Path

As with so many other facets of the film industry, there is no single path to becoming a Costume Designer.

That being said, in many cases it starts with college. Given their interest in cinema, some aspiring Costume Designers may go to film school. But those looking to enter this field have no shortage of costume design programs from which to choose as well.

While in college, Costume Designers can begin to sharpen their craft by working on student films or local short films. Should they have an opportunity to work on a larger project, though, it will likely be as a Production Assistant with room for upward movement.

Understanding all the many elements that go into costume designing and becoming proficient in them can take years to master. During that time, an aspiring Costume Designer must learn those practical skills by assisting others more established in the field and building a reputation that makes them in demand for future jobs.

Costume design is a highly collaborative craft, which makes it just as vital for aspiring Costume Designers to know the importance of making and sustaining strong professional relationships as to master those practical costuming skills.

Much of the movie business is relationships and referrals. To continue getting those opportunities to learn on the job and keep moving up towards roles with more responsibility, someone looking to become a Costume Designer must be comfortable working well with others and growing their professional network.

As mentioned, smaller projects might allow for greater responsibility early on in one’s career, which can help them get on bigger projects as well.

Regardless of the scope of the project, aspiring Costume Designers can put themselves in the best position for career success by taking the following steps:

  • Familiarizing themselves with costume history, particularly in film.
  • Practicing basic costume construction along with basic sewing.
  • Watching movies and figuring out why Costume Designers made particular choices.
  • Reading scripts and building a portfolio for pitching to Directors and Producers.

How do you become Costume Designer?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

There are several paths, but I would certainly start small. If you live anywhere near a film school, you could perhaps design student films and you could learn that way. If you are the Costume Designer, even if it’s low budget, you are THE Costume Designer and you are responsible. You will have credit and no one can take that away from you. You’re not the Assistant or the helper. I really don’t care how little it was, it’s a big deal.

You can be the only person in the department. I have personally done that. It’s just me and I’m the fitter, I’m washing the clothes, I’m sewing on buttons, I’m talking to the Director and meeting with the Actor. It may seem crazy, but when you’re young it’s really fun. Definitely don’t be afraid to start small and have that experience. I realize not everybody can afford to do that because you basically are working for nothing, but it will give you experience.

If you send in your resume to a production and state that you’d like to work as a PA [Production Assistant] in the Costume Department, it will get passed to the Costume Department. If someone in the Costume Department sees that you’ve worked on two student films, that means you have a little bit of knowledge, and that can be enough. I’ve hired all kinds of PAs with all kinds of experience, and they usually come from someone in my department but it can come from elsewhere in production. If you know anyone in any capacity on a film, you can ask them to pass along your resume to the Costume Department. My experience is that people are pretty good about that and will do it.

I’ve heard this theory. “You could have an Instagram of your costumes.” Post a little video, something so you understand where a camera is being placed and what is seen and what is not seen, and there is some character involved that you have to dress. To me, I don’t know that that really speaks to you being able to read character, but if that’s who you are, maybe you’re a fashion person, and it could lead you to work on a fantastical kind of show like Emily in Paris or something where it’s colorful and fashionable. If you’re that kind of person, that might be a good way, creating a visual resume.

Experience & Skills

A successful Costume Designer must possess a varied skillset.

Perhaps most obvious is a mastery of costume construction, but this skill goes well beyond being able to sew together a dress or suit.

A Costume Designer must have basic knowledge of fashion history and/or the ability to research different eras to ensure not only that is every character represented faithfully through their wardrobe but also that their wardrobe is consistent with the time period and location. What was worn in 1970s New York City, including fashion trends and clothing materials, is worlds away from what was worn in 1790s Paris.

A successful Costume Designer must also understand the relationship between costumes and character. Their job is to tell the audience who every character is through what they are wearing. That means having a keen understanding of each character’s psyche and how it translates to their attire.

These skills can be gained and deepened by taking on as many on-set opportunities as possible. It’s through these different production experiences that a Costume Designer can develop their creative sensibilities and grow their confidence in making choices that the Director and other high-level creatives like and appreciate.

Given the importance of working many different gigs to get that experience and strengthen those skillsets, aspiring Costume Designers should be prepared for long and sometimes erratic hours on the job.

What skills are needed to be a Costume Designer?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

I think that a Costume Designer needs a range of skills. I think you should know how to sew, and you should know about pattern making. You do not need to do them well, but you need to understand them. If you want to have a costume built for a film, you need to be able to communicate it to someone who can do it for you.

It’s good if you can sketch, but it’s not absolutely necessary because, if you have the budget, there are Costume Illustrators. Alternatively, you can source a picture elsewhere and say, “This is what I want,” and you can proceed to have it built. It’s like an Architect not understanding how to put support beams in a house. You really need to understand how it’s done. You don’t need to be the one to do it but you need to know and appreciate that particular skill set. It’s the only way you can direct someone.

I also think there are more … emotional skills. Every script is different and every experience you have in this world will enable you to impart something into whatever script you’re designing. If you’re designing a film set in 1985 and your mom was twenty in 1985, maybe your mom has some pictures that she could share with you.

If you’re designing a film about a high school student and you’ve only been out of high school yourself for ten years, you’ll be able to relate very closely because you were just in high school. If you work on a film about a rodeo and you don’t know anything about rodeos, you will need to learn more, and that leads to research skills: knowing what you don’t know and how to find out about it, because really, every single film has something you need to teach yourself.

You may be able to draw upon your experience, but you will definitely have to look up something. The more you are out in the world trying new things and being open to ideas, the better. Visual references, in particular, are very important. Go see lots of movies, lots of plays, or see a dance performance. Go to a museum or go and see some photography. Whatever it is.

If you have a character who’s learning how to play the guitar and you might have some experience with that yourself, you can relate somehow. That’s really, I think, very important: finding something relatable with your characters.

It also requires a lot of focus to work on a script and break it down and know your way around it. You need to know it almost as well as the Director would because you’ll always be in some position where you have to tell an Actor where they are in the story. Remind them that they’ve just had a big fight with their husband and now they’re coming through the door and they’re upset about it. It’s not always clear how that is necessarily reflected in the costume, but it’s important to know, and it’s important to be able to set up the feeling for the Actor.

Knowing how to research and having empathy for characters is very important. Photography is important because you always have to photograph the costumes and send them off for approval. So understanding lighting is very useful; how things appear in some light and how they appear on a set. Which also means you need to know about what color is like on film. Colors shimmer in digital format.

Understand that you will have to know what the set is going to look like and what the Cinematographer is thinking of for a scene. Those are all factors that come into play when you’re choosing a costume. You also have to consider if it makes too much of a scratchy noise for the Sound Department. Certain fabrics are very noisy. Certain fabrics suck up all the light. Certain fabrics will be too bright and too distracting, unless it’s a very intense, colorful kind of show, in which case you get to use color with abandon.

You have to have the ability to change a plan at the last moment. This happens frequently. You may have a decision in your mind that the Actor’s going to wear the teal dress, and then on the day, the Director says, “I think it should be something else.” You really need to have an alternative idea. You may not have to change it. You may say, “No, I don’t think we should change it. Here’s why.” You may be able to defend the choice, but I always keep something in my back pocket just because this happens. It’s not even a bad thing necessarily. It’s just something that occurs. So being flexible and being prepared is key. Often, the last minute changes are for the better.

Diplomacy is very important. You will have to be very diplomatic with a lot of different people from the movie star to the Director to someone helping park the cars. You will have to know your words and way of handling people so that no one is offended. You will be told things and hear things that are very personal and you need to understand that it’s exactly that: personal. I feel it’s very important not to burn a bridge, because over and over again, you’re encountering the same people you encountered a few years ago. If you’re abusive to some young Production Assistant, ten years later, they may be in a position to hire or NOT hire you.

In fact, as young people, the relationships you build will really serve you as you move forward. I do this all the time. I have a young person in the department and they work really hard, and they do a great job, and they want a recommendation letter for a union position or a reference for the next job. I’m very happy to do that because I’ve just spent three months with them and I know how great they are.

Always ask someone if it’s okay to use them as a reference. I check references all the time when I’m hiring people, and I’ve had that experience where a resume had three references on it, and all three people gave a poor review. I thought, “You really need to know what people are going to say about you.”

You could ask, “May I use you as a reference?” If they say, “I’m uncomfortable,” or, “I don’t think you should,” DO NOT use them, because if they are called, they’ll be surprised and the review will not be glowing. I would say most of the time people are happy to do it, but if you ask and they say no, it might be more of an opportunity to wonder why and to think about that yourself. Why does this person not want me to give their name as a reference?

It’s not just your knowledge of clothing and history and film studies. It’s about being all of those things: flexible, diplomatic, and trustworthy.

Education & Training

While possible to learn on the job, the many costume design programs available demonstrate how popular it is to get a degree in this discipline.

It’s important to keep in mind that the education of a Costume Designer doesn’t stop. Throughout the course of their career, they should always be developing their costuming knowledge as it relates to era, locale, and character.

Whether or not an aspiring Costume Designer begins their career with film school or a specialized design program, it can help to find a mentor-mentee relationship where they can learn from someone already established in the costume design world. That is another reason why taking entry-level positions as an Intern or PA can be immensely helpful, as they offer the chance to meet high-level Costume Designers and potentially forge a relationship that could lead to a mentorship.

Aspiring Costume Designers can also look to the internet where sites like YouTube and Masterclass offers costume design instruction.

What education is needed to become a Costume Designer?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

I was a history and film studies major, but I sewed a lot and made a lot of my clothes. I took a lot of classes in sewing. Then I did an associate degree in fashion design. I could build hats. I could make a pattern. I could do all these things. I could illustrate. All this stuff I was taught. Some of it I was good at, and some of it I wasn’t but it gave me a framework of understanding that is still useful today.

I learned that I didn’t really like the fashion industry, but had never really thought about theater and film and reading scripts. I stumbled into it through a Casting Director who worked at a small off-Broadway theater company in New York. I started doing short one-act plays first. I learned right away how interesting it was to read a script and think about it, watch a rehearsal, see it on a stage, and procure the costumes. There was literally no money, nothing, but it gave me a lot of experience.

My history degree taught me how to research and to think critically about film, scripts, and stories. My film studies provided another key element. Studying the history of film and seeing a lot of classic films will equip you when references are made. Directors frequently mention films that have inspired them. Recently a Director told me he thought the feeling and lighting from Fight Club was something he thought we should reference in our work together.

This is valuable for any category in my opinion, whether you’re a Cinematographer, a Producer, Costume Designer, or Prop Person. If someone makes a reference to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, you should know what they’re talking about. I feel like there are at least 100 films that you should have in your repertoire in your brain just to at least know what someone’s talking about. Maybe you don’t know the shot or maybe you don’t know exactly what they mean, but you should know that Stanley Kubrick was a famous Director and that The Shining was a scary film. I feel like that kind of film study is for everybody, and it’s very helpful, interesting, fun, and ultimately useful.

I know, for example, at FIT in New York, they have an intense costume design class directed towards theater design. I know someone who just took it. She was taught how to assemble a mood board with her references and thoughts, in order to make a presentation to show her way of thinking. This is something that is really, really helpful for your design process: that research and that search for imagery and references, assembling it, presenting it, and talking someone through it. The other thing they teach is script analysis. It all starts with the script so you need to know, as I’ve said several times already, how to go and break each scene down.

You need to know: scene one, story day one, it’s morning, it’s exterior, it’s wintertime, and it’s the northeast. Then the child walks down the driveway and sees the rabbit in the snow. The school bus pulls up and we see her nemesis on board. You need to know the emotional passage of each character. You need to understand act one, act two. You need to know the big steps and you need to know individual scenes, and you really need to know it well.

I have an exercise that I do. I go through the script from the point of view of each character. I go through each scene. If they’re not in the scene, I move on to the next scene and so on. I make a grid for myself. I’ve done it for so long. I used to handwrite it and now I of course have digital formulas for it, but it’s very useful as an exercise to get yourself to learn your script. Script analysis: very important.

Textile studies is also very important. Once you start building costumes and understanding how things look on screen … sourcing them and knowing how they’re made and what the properties of the textiles are. If you have something made, it will look the way you think it will look. This takes a very long time to learn. If you’re a design person, you’ll want to do this: learning about textiles, learning how to sew, and pattern-making.

Fun Facts

In 2018, Ruth E. Carter became the first Black recipient of the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design for the film Black Panther. She has also been nominated for Best Costume Design for the films Malcolm X (1992) and Amistad (1997).

Edith Head holds the record for both the most Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design with 35 noms and the most Oscar wins for Best Costume Design with eight for The Heiress (1949), Samson and Delilah (1949), All About Eve (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Facts of Life (1960), and The Sting (1973).

Ann Roth is currently the oldest recipient of any competitive Oscar at 89 years old (tied with Agnés Varda and James Ivory) for her Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design for the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).

Additional Resources

Even if a Costume Designer is not yet eligible to join the Costume Designers Guild, also known as Local 892 in Los Angeles, they can learn about what the union has to offer Costume Designers, Assistant Costume Designers, and Illustrators. They might also be able to meet those in the union and attend or volunteer for union events.

Motion Picture Costumers, also known as Local 705 in Los Angeles, is the union for Stitchers, Drapers, Shoppers, and everyone between those classifications. Again, understanding these two organizations can show an aspiring Costume Designer how to advance in the industry.

FAQ

Did you have anything else that you think aspiring Costume Designers should know about?

Susan Lyall (Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Luther)

I think it’s important for any aspiring Costume Designer to always continue to grow. By that, I mean just be curious about the world because you just never know when it’s going to relate to something you’re going to design. That’s really it. Be curious.

Costume Designer Susan Lyall
Susan Lyall

Susan Lyall is a Costume Designer. Her recent credits include Being the Ricardos, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Molly’s Game, and the upcoming Luther film.

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